School of Information Studies (iSchool) Assistant Professor Yun Huang has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps program to explore commercialization of Bluetooth Low Energy Beacon technology that she has developed.

The I-Corps program prepares academic researchers to extend their focus beyond the university laboratory and is designed to accelerate the economic and societal benefits of NSF-funded research projects that are ready to move toward commercialization.

Through the program, Huang and her team of doctoral students will identify valuable product opportunities that can emerge from their research and will learn skills in entrepreneurship through focused training in customer discovery. The team also benefits from mentorship from established entrepreneurs.

Huang serves as the principal investigator on the grant. Doctoral students Yaxing Yao and Qunfang Wu work as entrepreneur leads. The team is also joined by iSchool Assistant Professor of Practice Michael D’Eredita, who serves as the team’s industrial mentor.

The project is rooted in work that Huang began in 2015 when she was working on a research project with Syracuse University’s Department of Public Safety. When Huang learned that floor plans of University buildings were being uploaded to Google Maps, she began to explore ways to use technology to aid in building navigation.

Syracuse University’s Information Technology Services division provided Huang an initial $3,600 in seed money for mapping out indoor spaces of campus buildings, and Huang also pursued a Google faculty award, which provided another $38,000.

“I became interested in exploring the Low Energy Bluetooth technology in 2016 after Google’s grant came in,” said Huang. “The Bluetooth Beacons allow us to gather hyperlocal information about how people move through or co-locate at an indoor space,  like a classroom.”

“We started using the Beacon technology in Hinds Hall, with sensors across the ground floor areas,” Huang explained. “We were exploring different designs to promote social interactions among students when they were co-located in the same indoor area. The idea of using the technology to facilitate class attendance taking emerged shortly after.”

Huang’s team then developed a mobile app, called SU Connect, that leverages the Beacons mounted inside particular classrooms to verify students’ attendance. To enable automatically checking in to a class, students need to download the app on their mobile phones.

“The purpose of this NSF I-Corps grant is to move us beyond the University and explore the market for this Beacon technology in other sectors, like airports, museums, libraries, and convention centers,” said Huang, “so we can see how this IoT (Internet of Things) technology might address real needs in creative ways.”

Commercial uses could include counting people and traffic within a public space, establishing traffic patterns and paths through buildings, and enabling people to better navigate within indoor spaces.

The I-Corps funding allows Huang’s  team to travel, talk to potential customers, research their proposed markets, meet with technology vendors, and talk to end users. “I want the business to take off and be successful.” Huang explained, “Establishing this platform with a large number of active users will show societal impacts of the research and further allow me to develop new research agenda with diverse user populations.” 

For Huang’s doctoral students, Qunfang Wu and Yaxing Yao, the I-Corps’ entrepreneurial focus provides a different kind of practice for the pair to learn and master. “I improved my interview skills significantly by practicing scientific methods and entrepreneurial approaches along the process, which can in turn benefit my research in the long run,” shared Yao. “I learned a lot of new things, like how to use business language to communicate with others and how to use different tools to present and evaluate our ideas.”

“This project allows them to start thinking about research in very practical terms. There is a learning curve to this. I’m excited to see how they rise to this new challenge,” D’Eredita remarked. “A big focus of this grant is on educating the academic scholars, and preparing them to get their research to market if it is commercially viable.”